Bremmer contends that political stability can be achieved through a closed society (eg. North Korea), and even more so through an open society (eg. U.S., Japan, Sweden). In between, lies political instability - hence, stability plotted on the Y-axis (vs. openness on the x-axis) would resemble a "J curve."
Maintaining stability in a closed society requires limiting access to outside ideas (eg. purge "liberals" and intellectuals, ban/limit satellite dishes, Internet access, foreign trade, foreign films, outside books and magazines, cell phones, etc.), internal police (eg. KGB in the old U.S.S.R., Hussein's spies). Stability exists in open societies because their citizens know that political and social problems will be resolved by legitimate institutions. The "bad news" is that authoritarian elites cannot be quickly replaced by widely accepted institutions - it takes time for those new institutions to demonstrate credibility and gain strength over individuals that seek to make themselves dominant; it is easier to reestablish order by declaring martial law than increasing freedom.
Bremmer then uses these concepts to propose alternative directions for U.S. foreign policy. Instead of pushing regime change in North Korea via imposing punitive sanctions and cutting off opportunity to interact with outsiders (actually helps Kim by providing someone to blame for his problems and making isolation easier), we should encourage the Chinese and South Korea to create openings into North Korea. Further, we should also allow North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons while China and South Korea enforce inspections of N.K.'s exports to prevent nuclear smuggling.
A similar less confrontational approach should be/have been taken vs. Iran, Iraq, and Cuba. Additional reasons for doing so in Iran: Russia, China, and possibly some European nations will not allow sanctions against Iran, Iran was supportive of our efforts in Afghanistan, and the biggest threat against Iran's mullahs is its unemployed youth - not the U.S. (A 2002 survey found 94% of Iranians wanting either "change" or "major change.") As for Iraq - we simply should have let the U.N. inspectors continue, and forty years of isolating Cuba has accomplished nothing except to almost bring nuclear havoc during the Kennedy years.
Bremmer makes some good points - clearly we have not succeeded in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, or Cuba, and new thinking is appropriate. (I am, however, leery of simply relying on export inspections to contain N.K.) However, he could have done it in far less than 320 pages - eg. a magazine article.
Reading "The J Curve" also prompts one to think about how long American political stability can withstand the assaults continually perpetrated upon it. Examples include attempts to squash opposition (intellectuals, newspapers and other media), control voting (gerrymandering, large campaign contributions, impairing opponents access to voting), and misrepresenting actions being taken (tax cuts mostly benefiting the middle class; Saddam had WMD). Simultaneously globalization is creating social stresses through increased unemployment, lower wages and living standards, and decimating aspirations. How long before we descend into political instability?